The number of cases of improper relationships between teachers and students is on the rise again in Texas as lawmakers push for sweeping legislation to address the issue.
Texas Education Agency investigators opened 97 such cases from Sept. 1 through Jan. 31. There were 66 cases that were opened during the same period last year, which saw the highest number of cases in at least eight years.
“This is not a victimless crime. These students are affected immediately by inappropriate relationships,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said at a Senate Education Committee hearing Thursday. “The stories are very heartbreaking.”
The TEA is investigating more than 1,000 teacher misconduct cases, most of them involving improper relationships with students. Agency investigators must determine whether teachers’ teaching licenses should be sanctioned or revoked. Last year, officials opened 222 cases.
The latest numbers were reported at the hearing as lawmakers laid out two bills that aim to curb improper relationships between teachers and students. With the support of 18 other senators, Senate Bill 7 filed by Bettencourt would make it at least a Class A misdemeanor for a principal or superintendent to fail to report teacher misconduct to the TEA.
Patty Quincy with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers as well as state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, questioned the clarity of the bill’s language, suggesting it would be difficult to determine whether an educator failed to report such an incident intentionally or because the educator wasn’t aware of the misconduct.
“How someone is expected to know or should have known — how can an employee be held to that standard if the other employee in question has not been investigated, indicted or even charged?” Quincy said.
Other provisions of Bettencourt’s bill include:
• Teachers ordered to register as a sex offender would lose their teaching licenses.
• The state would revoke the certification of any educator who knowingly helped secure a classroom job for a teacher charged with sexual misconduct with a minor or student.
• The TEA’s investigations department would have the authority to subpoena witnesses.
• More training would be required for teachers about appropriate boundaries with students.
Senate Bill 653 filed by state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is similar to Bettencourt’s bill, including calling for more teacher training, starting with education preparation programs. But it would also create a registry of teachers who have been convicted of a crime that had led to them losing their teaching license.
The registry would cost $3 million to build.
“This allows educational institutions in the state of Texas to use that registry to figure out if this person has been flagged or not,” Taylor said.
The registry idea comes weeks after an American-Statesman investigation showed that information on many improper relationship cases that TEA investigates isn’t readily available to the public, making it easier for some accused teachers to slip from one teaching job to another. The newspaper launched its own database to help the public identify former teachers accused of such misconduct and where they’ve worked in the past.
The American Federation of Teachers didn’t support or oppose the bills, but many of the state’s educator groups testified Thursday in support.
“We really like aspects of the bill that dealt with ongoing education and that education is included from the very beginning and required for educator preparation programs,” said Kate Kuhlmann with the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
Kuhlmann also applauded Taylor’s bill for requiring school districts to have a policy about proper electronic communication between teachers and students.
Taylor and Bettencourt said the reason for the surge in improper teacher-student relationships is social media. Social media platforms allow students and teachers to communicate more brazenly. It also leaves a digital trail for investigators to build a case against a teacher.
“The system is broken, and it’s getting out of control with the amount of electronic communication that’s out there,” Taylor said.
What we reported
An American-Statesman investigation this month found that fewer than half of the hundreds of teachers who lost their licenses after being investigated for an improper relationship with a student were charged with a crime. In cases where no charges occurred, very little information was readily available to the public.